Magnets are changing the keyboard game

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The next big thing in mechanical keyboards is magnetic switches.

Mechanical keyboards quickly went from being a niche product to the mainstream during the pandemic, as everyone was looking to upgrade their home offices — and maybe even pursue a new hobby. Brands like Akko, Drop, Ducky, Apomaker and Keychron became household names and today's enthusiasts can choose between dozens of different layouts and purchase parts from even more vendors.

Since then, things have become a bit stale – even what were once high-end features have moved to budget keyboards. RGB lighting has long since become the standard, as Angry Miao and others keep finding cool new ways to use it. The number of switches available seems infinite, from the lightest switches for gamers to the heaviest switches for the most energetic typists – all linear, tactile and in an endless amount of attractive variants and colors. A few years ago, a gasket-mounted keyboard, which gives you a softer, bouncier typing feel, was something enthusiasts could only get on high-end boards, but now everyone essentially does the same. .

In some ways, this is great: the average build quality of mechanical keyboards on the market has never been higher and prices have become lower. But the whole scene has become a bit boring. This is where magnetic switches come in, with the ability to instantly change the actuation point (the point where the switch registers your downstroke during a keypress).

Image Credit: Akko

On a standard mechanical keyboard switch, you physically close an electrical circuit to register a key press. When you push down, the two legs on the stem (the moving part to which the keycap is attached) apply pressure to two metal leaves that close the circuit.

The shape of that stem and its feet is what really differentiates a linear switch (think of the Gateron Red switches on many gaming keyboards) from switches with a more tactile feel (like Cherry Brown). Linear switches have smooth stems while tactile switches have a bump that provides a slight moment of resistance as you press it. The overall design of the stem, its feet, the spring, the stem it sits on and the overall switch housing can drastically alter the feel and sound of a switch – but also when the keypress is actually registered by the keyboard. For example, for a standard Gateron Red, the actual keypress is registered after about 2 millimeters of press and the total travel distance before the stem hits the bottom of the switch is 4 millimeters.

Mechanical switches are very different. They rely on magnets and springs and are activated by sensing changes in the magnetic field. Popularized by Dutch keyboard startup Vooting, these switches rely on the Hall Effect and have actually been around since the 1960s. They still use the same overall design as mechanical switches with a stem and spring, but since there is no electrical circuit to close, there are no legs on the stem. However, the stem has a permanent magnet and as you press down, a sensor on the keyboard's PCB registers exactly what position the switch is in. And this is where the most important change comes in: you can change how far you need to press to register a keystroke.

Akko's

When you're gaming, you might want to register it as soon as you start moving your finger 0.1 millimeter, but then again when you're using the same keyboard to type, to avoid mistaken keystrokes. You can change it to 2.5 mm. Typically, this is done with a simple key combo on the keyboard or in the manufacturer's software tool. Because these sensors are sensitive to temperature variations, there is usually an option to calibrate the keyboard as well.

It also allows for some other smart tricks as you can not only change the location of the key press but also the location of releasing it. This may not matter too much to you when you're typing, but when gaming, it allows you to quickly spam keys as needed (and most tools that come with magnetic keyboards also have a fast trigger setting ), while all this happens at a high level of customization allowing you to experiment with your favorite settings without having to physically change a different switch.

Image Credit: Akko

If you want to go overboard, you can even create something similar to a macro by assigning multiple actions to the same key, so that when you press halfway down, a different action is registered as you press one key. Exit and that's when the switch pushes the keycap up again – and probably another one somewhere in between. I haven't found a personal use case for it yet, but I will definitely find one.

However, one thing you can't change is the resistance of the switch. Despite all the talk of magnets, at the end of the day, it's still controlled by a spring inside the switch.

One problem here is that there is still no standard for these switches, so not every switch will work on every keyboard. However, depending on the manufacturer, you may be able to plug traditional mechanical switches into the PCB as well (though without the optimization benefits of magnetic switches).

Trip to Sardinia: Akko's MOD 007B PC

To test all this, Akko sent me a review unit of its MOD007B PC Santorin keyboard – one of the latest in its World Tour series and one of the more restrained designs in that series. Priced at just under $150 (though you can usually get it for around $110 on Amazon), the gasket-mount MOD007B PC comes pre-built with Kailah's Linear Sakura Pink magnetic switches. The PCB also accepts 3-pin mechanical switches.

As for connectivity, you get standard Bluetooth and USB-C connections, as well as a multi-host 2.4Ghz option (which requires an included dongle). For wireless operation, the board is powered by a 3600mAh battery.

Image Credit: Frederic Lardinois/TechCrunch

The 75-cent case isn't very exciting with its plain polycarbonate case, but unlike some high-end keyboards, it allows you to adjust your typing angle with the help of its dual-space feet.

Akko used a good amount of foam inside the case to shape the board's sound, which is on the raucous side. I prefer a slightly quieter sound, but that's 100% personal preference. The stabilizers are well tuned, but the amount of case ping is noticeable. A few small mods should take care of this, but out of the box, this is the most obvious downside of this board and I'm surprised that after several generations of MOD007 boards, the company hasn't fixed it. Some minor modifications should take care of this, but even at this price point, buyers shouldn't do that.

As far as software is concerned, Akko's own proprietary software tools are capable and quite easy to use. It does what it's supposed to do and stays out of your way. That's one thing about boards with magnetic switches: they prefer proprietary software over open-source solutions like VIA.

Image Credit: Akko

However, this board is all about magnetic switches. I had a lot of fun experimenting with them and even though I didn't win a single chicken dinner in PUBG, what I learned from testing it was that at the right settings, it allowed me to react a little faster. Your mileage may vary in Valorant and other shooters where faster trigger functions may be more important. However, either way, it's a fun board to play on.

This switch is a Khail Sakura Pink magnetic switch with 50gf bottom-out force. It is in line with many standard linear switches, although may be a bit bulky.

For everyday typing, it took me a while to find the right setting. I did some experimenting, but in the end, I ended up with the Akko's default comfort setting, which sets the actuation and release points at 2mm. The default gaming setting is 0.5mm, which feels pretty fast.

While not the most premium board on the market, Akko has created a board that, with the right settings and a few minor mods, is pleasant to type on (if you like linear switches) and also makes a good gaming platform. However, the most important thing here is that this board allows gamers and non-gamers alike to dip their foot into the magnetic switch market without incurring huge fees. Is this the best board out there? Not by a mile – but at this price point, it's hard to beat.